Denver Poses Threat for Lakers in Western Conference Playoffs

With the help of a 39 point effort from Chauncey Billups, the Denver Nuggets put away the Los Angeles Lakers despite the absence of Carmelo Anthony in a convincing 126-113 road victory at the Staples Center on February 5.

If the Lakers’ 1-3 record in their four regular season matchups against the Denver Nuggets is any indication, the Lakers—heavy favorites to win the top seed in the NBA Western Conference and to make their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance—will face tougher competition in this year’s Western Conference playoffs than in the previous two seasons.

After pulling away for a nine-point victory with a fourth quarter momentum burst in Game 5 at the Staples Center in the 2009 Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 lead in what had been a tightly contested series, the Los Angeles Lakers slammed the door on the Nuggets’ playoff hopes with a convincing 119-92 road thumping on Denver’s home court in Game 6.  The Lakers’ intent to end the series that night was made very clear as they executed their game as effectively as they had all season at both ends of the court; the Nuggets team—which had shown an undaunted competitive edge that manifested their belief that they stood a chance in the series—came out flat and appeared to lack the same level of confidence they had shown in the first five games of the series.

Although the Lakers have won the only matchup in which both team rosters were at full strength in the 2009-2010 season and still retain a 3.5 game lead in the top seed in the Western Conference standings, the ease with which Denver took two of their three regular season victories against the Lakers may be cause for concern—particularly that in their 126-113 victory without the services of Carmelo Anthony against a full-strength Lakers team.  Whether it was due to the lack of focus which seems to be characteristic of the Lakers during many regular season games in their wait until the playoffs—or due to the adjustment of the team chemistry complicated by frequent injuries to key components of the rotation—the Lakers showed the same flat lack of intensity shown by Denver in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals one year ago.

Whether the confidence shown by Denver throughout the regular season in their ability to match up with the Lakers will carry over into an upset in a potential Western Conference Finals rematch remains to be seen.  The Lakers—particularly in their seasons as defending champions—have been known to show an occasional lack of intensity during the regular season before ratcheting up their play to a level at which they appear to be a completely different team; the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers 15-1 playoff and Finals run serving as a strong reminder.

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